Surprise move

What Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek re-election means for schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to drop his reelection bid has serious implications for several big public education initiatives in Chicago and for district leadership, from the membership of the appointed school board to the district’s handpicked CEO, Janice Jackson.

Emanuel announced he’s not seeking a third term Tuesday morning at City Hall. The news came just hours after he rang an opening-day bell at Bronzeville Classical, a new selective-enrollment school that opened on the former site of Hartigan Elementary.

Emanuel’s legacy is closely tied to schools, as his remarks Tuesday indicated. Ticking off his accomplishments, he said, “What matters most in public life is four more years for our children, not four more years for me.”  

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel’s public record on education has hit both highs and lows. He steered the system out of a $700 million budget deficit that fall, to a near-balanced budget this school year, all while extending the school day citywide, instituting full-day kindergarten, forging a better relationship between the public school district and City Colleges, and pushing for a universal pre-K plan — a $175 million, four-year undertaking that is in the initial rollout phase this fall.

Though universal pre-K has enjoyed bipartisan support in cities and states, his successor could presumably scuttle the early-stage effort, which builds upon funds from the federal government, the state, the city, and Chicago schools.

“It’s a significant expenditure, so it will and should be a topic of conversation,” said Robin Steans, the chair of the Steans Family Foundation and the former director of the education policy advocacy group Advance Illinois. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

But, Steans added, the public is starting to understand that investments in early education could pay substantial dividends. “There’s no way you can look at the [kindergarten-readiness] data for Chicago or any other part of the state and think that our investment in early childhood is where it needs to be.”

Alongside Jackson, a former principal who took the top job in January, Emanuel has basked regularly in recognition from a Stanford University researcher, Sean Reardon, who issued a report last fall identifying Chicago as the fastest improving urban district in the country. But the mayor’s school policies also faced serious backlash, chief among them his decision, in 2013, to close 50 schools and displace more than 12,000 students amid declining enrollment. The mass closing was traumatic for neighborhoods, students, and teachers, according to a report released in May by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and had at best a neutral impact on student achievement in some areas, and a negative impact in others.  

And, after a revolving door of school district leaders with deep flaws — including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is now in federal prison — it took Emanuel nearly his entire tenure to find a school chief who had the respect of rank-and-file educators.

In Jackson, a former principal who served as No. 2 under another flawed chief, Forrest Claypool, the mayor found someone who could navigate the murky politics of a school-choice district, spar with a prickly union, and size up troubling gaps in equity and pledge ways to tackle them.

Even last week, the mayor referenced the Stanford report when joining Jackson at Josephine Locke Elementary, in the Montclare neighborhood, to announce slight gains in math on a standardized test known as the NWEA. Explaining the test scores, Jackson called him the “genius” behind many initiatives.

The respect has been mutual. But as mayoral appointees, Jackson and the school board she reports to are vulnerable now that the election has shifted. The Chicago Teachers Union lost no time Tuesday saying it would likely choose a candidate to back based on who’s willing to call for an elected school board.

It’s time to “let the people of the city of Chicago decide about school leadership,” said Jesse Sharkey, who will be confirmed as president of the union Wednesday.

He sidestepped the question of whether the union would support Jackson once Emanuel’s predecessor was in place. “Janice Jackson is an educator so in that regard there are things happening in schools that are just plain old common sense.” But, Sharkey added, “the bar has been set so low,” and an elected school board would be the first step to raising it.

Emanuel’s decision to drop out of the race for the February election does not mean there will necessarily be a change in CEO, said Steve Tozer, a recently retired professor who mentored Jackson at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. He is the leader of several Illinois education policy initiatives. 

“Any mayor will want the school system to succeed,” said Tozer, “and Janice [Jackson] is the best bet right now.”

“Count me among those who are nervous,” said Steans, about the potential for change at the top. “While there’s always room to improve and review is healthy, in a world where CPS has been making steady and significant gains over a sustained period of time, I worry about the disruption that comes with big changes.”

Peter Cunningham, who worked for former Chicago schools chief and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both in Chicago and Washington, D.C., said that the local civic and philanthropic community generally supports Jackson, which makes replacing her a risky move for any new mayor. “We’ve never had a fully homegrown product of CPS — someone who is a parent, teacher, administrator, a former principal  — runnings schools in the modern era.”

The district has enjoyed more financial stability this year, with principals receiving budgets in the spring and fewer layoffs. That stability comes despite several seismic policy changes in the wake of scandals involving special education and student sexual assault at the hands of adults.

When students returned to school Tuesday, they were greeted at some schools with posters near the front doors that spell out the district’s new procedures for reporting sexual misconduct.

Instability at the top of the district contributed to its lapse in handling student sex cases, according to a preliminary report released in August by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey. Regarding turnover of CEO and network chiefs, she wrote, “This turnover makes it difficult to instill and maintain productive policies and procedures, stable systems independent of any person, and cultures of compliance.”

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”